Cylinder seals are one of the most fascinating artefacts to come out of Mesopotamia. In fact, Mesopotamia is known for these small, cylindrical stamps, which are considered to be its unparalleled artistic accomplishment.
Also, do check out my MEGA Mesopotamia Unit Study post to find out just where Proto-cuneiform fit into the history of Mesopotamia. This huge post has lots of printable, videos, science experiments and, as always, stacks of suggestions for easy hands on activities you can do with your children! I am always adding new stuff to this post so do go and check it out.
What are Cylinder Seals?
Cylinder seals are, as their name suggests, cylindrical. The cylinders are carved from semi-precious stone (marble, obsidian, amethyst, lapis lazuli), gold or silver. What might not be so obvious is their relatively small size. Measuring between 1 to 1 1/2 inches long and 1/2 inch thick, these were compact.
Much like the earlier stamp seals, they were impression stamps. Perhaps as you would expect from a later invention, cylinder seals were far more complex and intricate, holding a greater amount of detail on its significantly larger canvas.
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Cylinder seals were an integral part of the Ancient Mesopotamian’s lives. They were literally used by everyone from royalty down to the slaves. The intriguing part of these cylinders is that they give us a snap shot in time of the average Mesopotamian. Not just of the Mesopotamians as a group but also of the individuals. And that is rare in artefacts of this age.
Where Are They Found?
Cylinder seals have been found all over Ancient Mesopotamia, however, higher concentrations have been found in modern day Syria and around the archeological site of Urek. Over 2000 have been found to date. If you consider all the ones that have not been found (some suggest numbers as high as 20000), you can see how vital they were to the Mesopotamian culture.
Their presence has been found over a wide geographical region. Nearby civilisations, such as Egypt and the Indus Valley, seem to have adopted these into their own cultures along the way.
The first glyphic images appeared on stone stamps in the Late Neolithic Period between 7600-6000 BC in Northern Mesopotamia, now known as Syria.
These were simple stone stamps which did the trick until the clay bulla was invented. This orb-shaped envelope was tricky for the stamp seal to work effectively on. It seems that around this time, the cylinder seal was invented to circumnavigate this problem. Known as kishib by the Sumerians and kunukku by the Akkadians, cylinder seals can be dated according to their design.
The Urek style seals were seen from about 3500BC onwards. These were visually distinct from the later Jemdet Nasr-style. They tended to be naturalistic, expressive and symmetrical compositions. Motifs included rituals with temples, boats and offerings. The engraving skills required to produce this type of art was off the scale! Imagine the hostility of a hard material like granite paired with the minute size of each cylinder. It would take a highly skilled individual to create the little mini worlds on the stone canvas wrapped around each cylinder.
The Jemdet Nasr style cylinder seals, from Southern Mesopotamia, were primarily used for administrative or ownership purposes. These tended to be less detailed with many bore holes and linear marks. Motifs included pigtailed women (!) and herds of cattle. In addition, these seals identified an institution rather than an individual.
The later Akkadian style seal, used between 2900-2350 BC, used inscriptions as the focal point with a well-balanced scene organised around it.
Cuneiform and Cylinder Seals
The invention of the cylinder seal did not seem to affect the usage of stamp seals, which were used alongside their newer counterpart. It is known that both predated the invention of cuneiform. However, it seems likely that once writing had been created, the seals were used alongside the writing, often containing cuneiform as part of the design.
If cuneiform was used, this would often give information about the owner such as their name and profession.
I will be discussing their usage next, but I want to mention here that they did seem to become heirlooms to treasure. This maybe explained why their continued use spanned over 3000 years. The personal attachment of being passed down something precious from a past generation probably kept them in circulation. In this way, they would likely have been worn a bit like a badge of honour rather than for more formal reasons.
What Were Cylinder Seals Used For?
They seemed to have both a practical and spiritual element to them. Practically speaking they were used for the following reasons:
- Authenticating a transaction or legitimising a business deal.
- Preventing access to containers
- As a sign of personal identity or professional affiliation. They served as a personal signature in the same way we sign a letter today
A close comparison might be that of a passport or driving licence, or even a credit card. If stolen, a person might be able to pretend to be that person…a bit like identity theft today.
A more spiritual use for the cylinder seals is as an amulet to ward away evil spirits. It is thought that those made with precious stones and gemstones were so made to signify their magical power.
How Were These Cylinder Seals Made?
I have already mentioned that they were made from cylinders of semi-precious stones. Historians believe that the actual blank cylinders were created by specific artisans and then sold to the seal cutters in bulk. Seal cutters apprenticed under a master seal cutter for at least four years. After the four years, they were able to set up in their own shop as a professional.
Archeologists found an in tact seal kit at the ancient site of Ugarit in Syria. This consisted of a small copper chisel, 2 pointed copper gravers (for more detailed work), a whetstone, a borer (for drilling holes, specifically the one which spanned its length) and some incomplete seals.
Seal cutters were carved intaglio, which means beneath the surface. This meant that an impression of the carving would be made when pressed in soft clay or wax. This impression would be the mirror image of the carving which meant the cutters had to reverse the image prior to carving.
The conception of the composition, its reversal and the ability to carve it into the stone in the negative on a rounded surface demonstrates the immense skill required of the seal cutters. Because of this they were highly respected and highly paid!
I have created a video to demonstrate how to make your own super simple but super effective cylinder seal:
I’ve also made some Cylinder Seal Notepages, which you can download for free below:
Practicalities of the Cylinder Seal
I’ve already mentioned about the individual seal being a bit like a passport, driving licence or credit card today. It is assumed that identity theft happened as regularly then as it does now. So how did people keep their own seals safe?
Each cylinder had a hole running through its middle and down its length. This could be threaded onto leather cord or worn as a brooch and pinned onto clothing. Queen Puabi was known to be wearing one. During the dig at the Grave at Ur, the queen was found with her seal resting atop her skeletal chest, all cloth long rotted away.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this lesson. I have many more, which are to be found in my massive Ancient Mesopotamia Unit Study. There is also an ever growing collection of videos on my homeschool YouTube channel, so feel free to peruse either!
And, of course, don’t forget to pin this lesson for another day: